(CN) - The 2nd Circuit on Thursday reinstated a reporter's breach of contract and defamation claims against MSNBC and two executives, saying it wasn't clear that she had resigned, as the network claimed.
Claudia DiFolco was hired as the Los Angeles correspondent for "MSNBC at the Movies" and "MSNBC Entertainment Hot List."
She claimed she performed her job "in an exemplary manner," but was "subjected to repeated mistreatment and abuse that created intolerable working conditions." Specifically, she said her executive producer, Scott Leon, and producer Cassandra Brownstein conspired to make her life miserable, repeatedly cancelling her scheduled shoots and trying to push her off the air.
She requested a meeting with MSNBC President Rick Kaplan in August 2005 to "discuss [her] exit from the shows." She said Kaplan misinterpreted her email as an effective resignation, when she just wanted to change positions within MSNBC.
Kaplan admitted to having told Leon about the email, and Leon pulled DiFolco off Fashion Week coverage in New York.
When DiFolco complained, Kaplan allegedly told her in an email, "My complete impression is that you have resigned," and then continued, "sooner is better since your obvious intent is to leave."
DiFolco insisted that she never intended to resign before her two-year contract was up. She accused one or more executives at MSNBC of leaking news of her "resignation" to the media, causing her to be defamed in online articles. Two industry websites, Inside Cable and News Blues, reported that DiFolco had resigned "in the middle of her contract."
Another site, TVSpy, posted a message under the alias "Jill Journalist" stating that DiFolco "believe[d] that cleavage, overtime in the makeup chair and a huge desire to become a star is ... how to pay your dues." The message also stated that "throughout her irrelevant career at MSNBC, she constantly ignored directions from news producers during live shots, refused to do alternate takes for editing purposes, pouted like a spoiled child and never was a team player."
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska dismissed DiFolco's lawsuit, saying her email exchanges with Kaplan indicated that she had, in fact, repudiated her two-year contract.
This holding unraveled DiFolco's defamation and tortious interference claims.
Because DiFolco repudiated her contract, according to the judge, the statements on Inside Cable and News Blues contract were essentially true. Preska added that the TVSpy comments were protected "opinions, not fact."
The Manhattan-based appeals court reinstated all but the tortious interference claim, saying the emails did not unambiguously establish that DiFolco intended to resign, despite Kaplan's belief otherwise.
"Kaplan may well have put this 'spin' on the earlier email in an attempt to rid MSNBC of an employee he considered troublesome," Judge Roger Miner wrote for the three-judge panel.
And if DiFolco didn't resign, the online statements may have disparaged her professional reputation, as she claimed.
Preska acted too quickly in dismissing the defamation claim over the TVSpy comment, the appellate panel ruled, because opinions based on false facts are actionable.
"Such knowledge of falsity is properly alleged here, and DiFolco is entitled to show that the 'negative characterization' presented on the website 'is coupled with a clear but false implication that the author is privy to facts about the person that are unknown to the general reader.'"
Defendants are MSNBC, Leon and Kaplan. Brownstein was dismissed as a defendant because she was never served.
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